Allentown High School started 3-0 in the 2018 football season.
The Redbirds also qualified for the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 3 sectional playoffs. Allentown was the sixth seed in the playoff field.
But in a state sectional’s opening round on Nov. 2 at Red Bank Regional High School, Allentown lost, 30-13. The defeat capped a late season skid for the Redbirds. They lost five of their last six games.
The 1-5 stretch, though, did not take away from what Allentown had already accomplished. Coach Jay Graber’s team also played well in the playoff opener on Nov. 2, taking a 13-7 lead in the third quarter.
But Red Bank responded by scoring 23 straight points.
During their run, the Buccaneers intercepted two Allentown passes, picked up a first down on a fake punt and scored three quick touchdowns, of 15, 15 and 70 yards, respectively. Red Bank running backs Makai Mickens (130 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and Nigel Mitchell (103, one) combined for 233 yards and three scores.
“I thought we played very well in the first half. We executed the game plan. We played very well. We played tough on defense,” Graber said. “We just couldn’t finish in the red zone. Three times in the red zone we didn’t score, including from the one inch line. In the second half we couldn’t recover from that.”
The game was a microcosm of Allentown’s season. The Redbirds looked really good for a long stretch but did not finish as well as they wanted to. Graber was still happy with his players–after the game and season.
“I thought our kids played hard. They got off to a strong 3-0 start. There were just a couple tough losses in a tough schedule. For us it’s all about execution and focus,” Graber said. “Now we need to have a big offseason of lifting and getting everything together.”
There is plenty of hope for next year. Allentown’s most dynamic offensive player was its quarterback, Dan Merkel, and he was only a sophomore in 2018. Merkel threw for 213 yards and ran for 110 on Nov. 2. The quarterback had recorded 1,216 passing yards and 733 rushing yards going into the playoff game.
“I haven’t really thought too much about next year, to be honest,” Graber said, chuckling. “It’s tough to think about next year when the season just ended.”
It is also tough for Graber to think about next year because he is losing some quality talent, including running back Rahsaan Emory, defensive leaders Nick Campbell and Jha’Quel Brown and linemen Drew Huth, Kyle Anderson and Mike Pugliese.
Emory ran for 1,048 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2018, and 82 yards and two scores on Nov. 2. Campbell led the Redbirds in tackles with 49. Brown had a solid all-around defensive season, with 47 tackles, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a defensive touchdown.
But Merkel’s favorite receiver, junior Chris McCrea, will also be back. McCrea caught 30 passes for 734 yards this fall, a 24.5 yards per catch average. He scored five touchdowns as well.
Graber will depend on the duo to torch defenses in 2019.
The rest of the lineup will be a project. But the Redbirds will at least have two standouts to build around.